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When I saw The Summer Book by Tove Jansson at The Green Hand bookstore in Portland in May, I was intrigued. Jansson is the Finnish-Swedish author of the Moomin books, and I didn’t realize she had also written books for adults. This book is about a young girl, Sophia, who spends summers on an island with her father and grandmother — by page nine we learn her mother has died. The book is made up of twenty-six brief chapters, each a glimpse into Sophia’s life.

Jansson herself spent most of the summers of her life on various islands in the Pellinki and Stockholm archipelagos. She describes both the wild natural beauty and the impact of people’s presence on the islands very vividly in The Summer Book (I could picture the house where Sophia’s family lived because two summers ago I read Finnish Summer Houses).

But far more than simply being evocative of a beautiful place, The Summer Book captures the strangeness of being a small motherless child growing up with a fair bit of freedom and a quirky grandmother who is a bit childlike herself. They talk and walk and play and Grandmother lets Sophia do things her father wouldn’t. They scold each other and use bad words and sing and Grandmother smokes.

Jansson tells readers what Sophia is feeling —  she gets angry with her cat for killing birds and stops speaking to him, she feels suddenly afraid of a seal skull she found on the beach, she shouts and gets frustrated and irritated with a friend who comes to the island and is afraid of the boat and the bugs. Jansson also tells readers what Grandmother is feeling. At one point she tells Sophia she couldn’t sleep and began “thinking about sad things.” She begins to describe being old: “I mean it all seems to shrink up and glide away,” Grandmother said, “and things that were a lot of fun don’t mean anything anymore. . . . ” Sophie gets upset and argues until Grandmother gives her an example: she can’t remember what it’s like to sleep in a tent, which Sophie has done.

“Well I’ll tell you what it’s like,” Sophia said. “You can hear everything much clearer, and the tent is very small.”

As Sophia goes on talking, Grandmother remembers better. And in exchanges like these, Jansson manages to portray what it’s like to be young and misunderstood and old and misunderstood. This is a lovely, quiet book, a series of sketches more than a story, an unfolding of life rather than a plot. If you want to be transported by your reading, this is the kind of book to do that. If you want a story with a beginning, middle and end, it might not be to your taste. I enjoyed it very much — I like to read books in translation, to experience a taste of some other place’s literature. I’m not going to any remote islands this summer, but The Summer Book took me to Tove Jansson’s and it was a wonderful place to visit.

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I finished another book on the Yale Climate Connections blog “12 books about climate change ‘solutions’ that belong on your summer reading list,” Cooler Smarter: Practical Steps for Low-Carbon Living. Presented by the Union of Concerned Scientists, this 2012 book is a non nonsense action guide. Nearly the entire book focuses on what we can do as individuals, in our communities, and as a society to reduce our carbon footprints, slow the pace of global warming, and protect the future. If you feel paralyzed or just uncertain about what concrete steps you can take, this book, and the accompanying website, is for you.*

The Computer Scientist and I have taken some steps already — some deliberately to reduce our footprint, like investing in hybrid vehicles, and some accidentally beneficial because they also make sense and save money, like trip-chaining or replacing our old drafty windows and adding insulation to the house when we replaced the rotting siding.

Although I found Being the Change very compelling, I’m not Peter Kalmus. Some of the changes he has made are impressive but not for me, like gleaning from dumpsters, converting an old diesel car to burn recycled vegetable oil,  or composting human waste. I admire his knowledge and commitment but I was left feeling like even if I took modest versions of his actions, things may not necessarily work out. Cooler Smarter‘s recommendations seem more accessible to me, a person with very few DIY skills who lives in a much colder climate than Kalmus.

Please don’t get me wrong — you should still read and enjoy Being the Change, learn what you can from itand feel glad for people living with this kind of passion for his values. Kalmus also addresses issues of justice and equity related to climate change in his book, and that is a key piece to understand. My advice: read both books!

Anyway, at my house, we’re going to try to take further steps, like eating less meat, installing programmable thermostats and living with colder winter temperatures in the house, and thinking carefully when we have to replace the water heater and our roof (both likely in the next decade) about energy use and conservation. Mainly we’ve committed to thinking more intentionally about climate change and the way all of our actions contribute to global warming.

As Cooler Smarter notes, “Can we accomplish the transition to a low-carbon society? Of course we can.” This isn’t a matter of not knowing enough, or not understanding what needs to happen — scientists have been telling us for decades. It’s a matter of will.

There is some good news. Cooler Smarter‘s team of science writers goes on to laud the progress already made around the world and shares their conviction that “Working together, we can step back from the brink of ecological disaster and move toward a more sustainable balance between the natural world and human civilization, ensuring a healthier planet for our children and grandchildren.” That is something very much on my mind these days, and in my prayers. I agree that it’s not too late, although it’s getting pretty darn close. If you’re frustrated by the inaction of our national government, take heart — there is so much happening in towns and cities across America to reduce the human impact on our world. And you can easily do so, too. Start by reading. You’ll be inspired to get going with this work.

*If you know anyone who is not yet convinced we should worry, Cooler Smarter also includes a very clear, 20 page chapter called “The Weight of the Evidence” that paints a compelling picture of the scientific consensus, although since this book was published, the situation has become more urgent and dire for earth’s climate.

 

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Recently I’ve been digging into some climate change booklists.  The first book I checked out is Being the Change: Life Well and Spark a Climate Revolution by Peter Kalmus. I was drawn to the description in Michael reading list at Yale Climate Connections: “The core message is deeply optimistic: living without fossil fuels is not only possible, it can be better.”

Kalmus is a climate scientist. He writes in a very personable way, not only telling the science like it is, in enough detail that I had to go back and re-read some of the more technical sections, but also telling his own story. The book is a sort of hybrid memoir-popular science-how-to. Kalmus writes of his own awakening to the reality of global warming, not only because he studied it but also because he began to practice meditation.

With his new awareness of reality, Kalmus felt called to live what he believes: that we owe it to all of life on Earth (including future life), to stop extracting, processing, and burning fossil fuels. Even though he has taken actions that will seem like too much for some readers he repeatedly suggests starting with what you can do and going from there. Humanure is probably a bridge too far for some, but he explains honestly that it was for his wife, until eventually, she used his “leaf toilet” too. But he goes on to say if you can’t imagine that, just compost. 

Kalmus offers lists of more accessible actions people can take and tips on taking them, not because he believes that individual actions will end global warming but because his own story illustrates the way his commitment to making changes grew as he continued to explore our culture’s addiction to fossil fuels. The book is as philosophical as it is scientific, grounded in Kalmus’s sense of justice and practical insights into human nature. He reminds readers regularly that his life is more rewarding, happy and fun since he began reducing his use of fossil fuels.

Towards the end of the book he describes bigger cultural and collective steps to take and alludes to his motivations:

“Our predicament is the result of a vast industrial-commercial system of living, which can be viewed in various ways. It’s the systemic fossil-fuelization of almost everything. It’s the replacement of interpersonal transactions with money and debt. It’s the redirection of distributed natural cycles with linear, centralized monetized flows of energy and resources . . . . It’s as if humanity’s cyclic connections to the land were cut by the scissors of the industrial system. We then plugged ourselves into the matrix, and we must now rely on that system for our survival.

Part of my response is to opt out of this destructive system. Opting out brings me the satisfaction of transitioning from consumer to producer. It can be playful, or delicious; sometimes it can be frightening; ultimately it’s fulfilling. Opting out is another form of reconnecting; as I lessen my dependence on global corporate systems, I naturally need to opt in to local biospheric systems.”

He goes on to say that imperfection is fine. He himself does “remain deeply intertwined within the industrial system . . . . But that’s OK; this is a path of transition . . . . Cultivate stillness, listen, go where your principles lead you — and do what brings you satisfaction.”

I’m not sure about this. I find it hard to reconcile being motivated by personal satisfaction with the kind of community building and awareness of the interconnectedness of living things that Kalmus espouses. I suspect doing what feels good is not necessarily going to lead everyone onto the path to doing what’s right, but I absolutely admire Kalmus’s commitment and conviction and the way he is living according to his values.

This is a very interesting book. It will (and should) alarm you, but it’s also very thought provoking and I don’t think anyone can come away from reading it without feeling at least slightly empowered to begin breaking fossil fuel’s grip on their lives and communities.

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My book club is reading Case Histories. I really enjoyed Atkinson’s Life After LifeA God In Ruins, and Transcription, so I figured I would like this. I did, although this first in the Jackson Brodie detective series is very different than her other books. I always say I’m not much of a mystery person, although if you have been with me here at bookconscious for a long time, you know I dip into them from time to time. It’s not that I don’t enjoy the detective-at-work part — usually that is very interesting, to see how someone would puzzle over the facts, inferences, and hunches until they’ve deduced who committed a crime. But I’m more of a Mrs. Pollifax and Maisie Dobbs sort of mystery fan. I prefer books like those books, that don’t have much description of violent murder.

So I almost stopped reading Case Histories after the first 44 pages, which laid out the three main cases in the book, because there was plenty of description of violent murder. However, right after that, Jackson is introduced, and I liked him. I liked many of the characters, and I really appreciated that Atkinson offers some good hearted folks, like Theo, alongside the really awful ones who do others bodily harm. The imperfect people in Case Histories — like Julia, who although not a psychopath is a bit of a narcissist, or Kim, who appears to be a very kind person but is also dating a gangster — are memorable and multifaceted characters.

I did find it strange that there would be multiple psychopaths in one city of just under 100,000 people, but maybe there are and I am overly optimistic. One of the things I liked is that the three main cases also point to other, less serious but still creepy and/or illegal activities, and the way Atkinson unravels these threads is interesting. When my “to read” pile gets a little shorter I will probably look for the other four Jackson Brodie mysteries. I’ll just have to remember that I’m there for the writing and the characters, and skim over the violent bits.

Because Atkinson’s writing is worth it. Here’s a passage about one of the characters’ lives after her three year old daughter disappeared: “Rosemary had slipped out of her own life very easily. She had shown no tenacity for it at all when she discovered that the baby girl she was carrying when Olivia disappeared had a twin, not Victor’s longed-for son, but a tumorous changeling that grew and swelled inside her unchallenged. By the time anyone realized it signaled a life ending rather than a life beginning, it was too late.”  Has cancer ever sounded so beautiful? There are equally lovely descriptions of a woman’s deep loneliness and a man’s asthma attack — Atkinson’s writing makes even the most unpleasant things lovely to read, in the same way that Ali Smith can manage to transform awful current events with her incredible writing in her Seasonal Quartet books.

Mysteries are good for summer, for tense times, really anytime you want an escape. Case Histories is plenty twisty and chilling, but also a really good read.

 

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Antoine Laurain’s newest novel, Vintage 1954, is a sweet story of time travel, romance, and family. One evening in 2017 at 18 Rue Edgar-Charellier in Paris, Hubert Larnaudie, the last member of the family that built his apartment building in 1868, descends to the cellar to look around at the mess he is considering cleaning up. Among heaps of old magazines and the detritus of generations of Larnaudies, Hubert spots a bottle of 1954 Beaujolais. Then some burglars shut him in his cellar and an American named Bob, newly arrived and booked into an apartment in the building through Airbnb, notices he is trapped and helps him out, enlisting the help of two young tenants, Julien and Magalie.

To express his thanks, Hubert invites them all into his apartment to enjoy the wine. Julien recognizes the bottle which comes from his family’s vineyard – where his great great grandfather disappeared in 1978. The same man who became known in his village as “Mr. Flying Saucer” after he saw a strange craft over the vineyard in 1954. The wine, it turns out, was impacted by the spacecraft and anyone who drinks it is transported to 1954. Now the four new friends have to figure out how to get back to 2017.

Like Laurain’s earlier books, especially The President’s Hat and The Red Notebook, there is a bit of romance, some family drama, a little mystery, and some famous historical figures sprinkled through the story. It’s a sweet tale, entertaining and quick to read. Perfect for a plane ride or a day at the beach!

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My bookclub read Mrs. Dalloway this month. I read it, and other work by Virginia Woolf, in college, but re-reading it was enjoyable. I remembered the book generally, but re-reading it I was struck once again by Woolf’s creativity and daring. She addressed things that we are still struggling to talk about today — gender roles in society, mental illness, post traumatic stress, income inequality and its impact on opportunity. And she did it in a beautiful, poetic book with some very memorable characters who are also reflecting on what they’ve done with their lives, and how they’ve fared in terms of love and family.

To me, the way that Woolf juxtaposes Clarissa Dalloway’s inner life with the other characters’, is brilliant. She compares the constricted life of Clarissa as a society hostess with the limits that restrict Septimus Smith, a shell-shocked WWI veteran whose promising future is strangled by mental illness; Miss Kilman, whose class, intellectual ability and fervor, and appearance place her firmly outside Clarissa’s and her daughter Elizabeth’s social orbit; and Peter Walsh, whose passions and probably bad luck seem to have limited his ability to achieve his full potential in life.

The minor characters are also wonderful — Septimus’s Italian wife Rezia, Clarissa’s husband Richard, Hugh Whitbread, Sally Seton, Lady Bruton. While the style of the book doesn’t call for full character development, I feel Woolf paints exquisite miniatures of each, and we get glimpses of their humanity, their longings, their minds, their limitations in the details she portrays — Peter with his pocket knife, Clarissa mending her dress, Richard bringing Clarissa flowers, Rezia making a hat, Lady Bruton holding court at lunch before consulting Richard and Hugh about her letter and then, snoring on her couch. Woolf creates these portraits with prose that is somewhat strange and quite lovely, a little like poetry, a little like a dream sequence in a film, such as this passage where Septimus is in a park waiting until it’s time to go on to Harley Street to see a new doctor:

“He had only to open his eyes; but a weight was on them; a fear. He strained; he pushed; he looked; he saw Regent’s Park before him. Long streamers of sunlight fawned at his feet. The trees waved, brandished. We welcome, the world seemed to say; we accept; we create. Beauty, the world seemed to say. And as if to prove it (scientifically) wherever he looked at the houses, at the railings, at the antelopes stretching over the palings, beauty sprang instantly. To watch a leaf quivering in the rush of air was an exquisite joy. Up in the sky swallows swooping, swerving, flinging themselves in and out, round and round, yet always with perfect control as if elastics held them; and the flies rising and falling; and the sun spotting now this leaf, now that, in mockery, dazzling it with soft gold in pure good temper; and now and again some chime (it might be a motor horn) tinkling divinely on the grass stalks — all of this, calm and reasonable as it was, made out of ordinary things as it was, was the truth now; beauty, that was the truth now. Beauty was everywhere.”

Mrs. Dalloway is a sad book, but that was the point — to help readers feel. As writer and scholar Maureen Howard wrote in her forward to the 1981 Harcourt paperback edition, “As readers of Mrs. Dalloway fifty years after its publication, we see that the novel endures. We admire the originality of concept, the brilliance of style, but it is the feelings in the book that remain so very fresh and we wonder that Virginia Woolf had to ask herself ‘How can one weigh and shape dialogue till each sentence tears the shingles in the bottom of the reader’s soul?'”

 

 

 

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I love a book that expands my “to be read” list, and Greek to Me: Adventures of the Comma Queen by Mary Norris did that. Not only does she recommend some classic books about Greece (such as Lawrence Durrell‘s and Patrick Leigh Fermor‘s work) but also, she writes eloquently about Homer and I have had Caroline Alexander’s translation of The Iliad on my shelf for some time.

Mostly it’s a joy to read about someone’s passions, and for Norris, the Greek language, literature, and Greece itself are longtime passions. She was a young copy editor at The New Yorker when she first began learning Greek, and her boss, Ed Stringham, encouraged her and even agreed it would help her work so it could be paid for by the magazine. He encouraged her to travel and suggested things to read (like the books mentioned above). Wouldn’t it be wonderful if everyone came across a mentor like that, who sees a spark and fans it?

Norris intersperses her writing about Greece and Greek with writing abut herself and her family, but this book doesn’t hit you over the head with interpersonal drama or devolve into navel gazing. Instead Norris is thoughtful, observant, introspective at times without being self-absorbed, curious about her family relationships without playing them up for effect. In short, she writes an intelligent, beautiful book that is informative and entertaining. Even though I went through a Greece phase of my own — we took a family trip when I read that there were deals to be had after the Athens Olympics, and I made sure the kids and I were immersed in all things Greek for about six months before we went — I learned a good bit reading Greek to Me, especially regarding connections between Greek and English.

Norris’s descriptive language is evocative and also makes the foreign familiar, as with this passage about the earthquake restorations at the Daphni monastery:  “The scaffolding inside made it look like trapeze school . . . by now multiple earthquakes had shattered the mosaics, which had collapsed onto the floor in jumbles of tesserae. The restorers’ work was of a magnitude I could barely comprehend: they were putting the Almighty together again.” Or this one, about the view from the Kalamitsi Hotel: “The sun left a pink smear above the distant gray-blue peninsula, and the sea was like a bolt of ice-blue satin, with matching sky, except that the colors of the air were not as nuanced, having no surface, existing as pure distance measured in light. In the grove in the foreground the trunks of olive trees twisted seductively A tongue of sea eased in from the Messenian Gulf below a steep hill covered with pines, plane trees, and pointed cypresses . . . .” It goes on, but you should read the book for the full effect.

If you’re staycationing this summer, this would be a great book to take you away, and if you’re planning a trip to Greece, this is a don’t miss. But even if neither of those describes you, this is a wonderful read. I wanted to sit down with the author over some coffee (or ouzo!) and hear more stories, take in her fascinating experiences, and enjoy her voice after I reached the end. In fact, I never looked for her first book, Between You & Me, about her time at The New Yorker when it came out, but I’ve added that to my list as well.

 

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